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he aim of this short essay is to start a discussion around the shape of the working class today.
The intention is to outline the broad changes that have taken place, while suggesting how fur-
ther research can move beyond analysis of large scale statistics - not discounting the necessity of
studies which interrogate such statistics further - to focus on the conditions of workers in the UK
today, and on the forms of resistance and organisation that can play a role in their transformation.
What do we mean by class?
1he oíFcial statistics are not the best source íor reaching an understanding oí class, but they can
provide important insights. A Marxist approach, by contrast, can allow us to move beyond sta-
tistics. Yet applying Marx’s theory of class to a contemporary analysis encounters another prob-
lem, namely, he ‘did not set out his conception of class in a systematic form’ (Bottomore, 1991:
p10,. Althusser and Balibar ,2009: p193, sum up the diíFculty when they write that the read-
er will know how Volume Three [of Capital] ends. A title: Classes. Forty lines, then silence.’ It
is therefore necessary to ‘reconstruct a coherent account of class from Marx’s writing’ (Callin-
icos, 198¯: p51,. Geoíírey de Ste Croix`s deFnition ,1981: p43, pro·ides a useíul starting point:
Class (essentially a relationship) is the collective expression of the fact of exploitation, the way
in which exploitation is embodied in a social structure. By exploitation I mean the appropriation of
part of the product of the labour of others.
This understanding of class is based on it being ‘an objective relationship’ (Callinicos, 1989:
p6), unconcerned with subjective opinions, i.e., whether an individual considers himself to be in a
particular class or not. 1his deFnition can be combined with Lrik Olin \right`s insight ,19¯8: p¯3,
JamIe Woodcock
The Working Class in Britain Today
Oxford Left Review
63, that workers cannot be deFned simply as wage-labourers,` but rather as wage-labourers who
also do not control the labour of others within production and do not control the use of their own
labour within the labour-process.’ This allows us to understand how a layer of workers, engaged in
supervisory or management tasks, occupy ‘objectively contradictory locations within class relations.’
A brief survey of the statistics
The census statistics provide a broad outline of employment by industry. The statistics in-
clude the total number of people who sell their labour, but also those who control the la-
bour and the exploitation of others and, therefore, would not form part of the working class.
Workforce Jobs by Industry 1987 2012 Change
Agriculture, forestry & ñshing 504,000 428,000 -¯6,000
Mining & quarrying 201,000 73,000 -128,000
Manufacturing 4,931,000 2,641,000 -2,290,000
Llectricity, gas, steam & air conditioning supply 212,000 115,000 -97,000
Water supply, sewerage, waste & remediation activities 142,000 201,000 59,000
Construction 1,955,000 2,005,000 50,000
Wholesale & retail trade, repair of motor vehicles & motorcycles 4,193,000 4,898,000 ¯05,000
1ransport & storage 1,2¯4,000 1,559,000 232,000
Accommodation & food service activities 1,3¯1,000 2,118,000 ¯4¯,000
Information & communication ¯¯4,000 1,266,000 492,000
Iinancial & insurance activities 1,025,000 1,149,000 124,000
Real estate activities 226,000 485,000 259,000
Professional scientiñc & technical activities 1,293,000 2,506,000 1,213,000
Administrative & support service activities 1,318,000 2,573,000 1,255,000
Public admin & defence, compulsory social security 1,889,000 1,590,000 -299,000
Lducation 1,906,000 2,¯¯5,000 849,000
Human health & social work activities 2,522,000 4,028,000 1,506,000
Arts, entertainment & recreation 598,000 876,000 278,000
Other service activities 716,000 801,000 85,000

1he Frst trend that can be identiFed is the large reduction in employment in Manuíacturing írom
198¯ to 2012 - a drop oí 46°. 1his has been accompanied by employment drops in Agriculture,
íorestry & Fshing ,-15°,, Mining & quarrying ,-64°,, and Llectricity, gas, steam & air conditioning
supply ,-46°,. 1he category oí Public admin& deíence, compulsory social security also decreased
by 15°. lowe·er, all other categories saw signiFcant increases. In particular the largest numerical
increases, by 2012, were in luman health & social work acti·ities ,increase oí 60°,, Administrati·e
& support ser·ice acti·ities ,93°,, Proíessional scientiFc & technical acti·ities ,94°,, and Lduca-
tion ,45°,. 1hese notable categories maniíest a growth oí ser·ice work between 198¯ and 2012.
1hese statistical trends point towards signiFcant changes in society. \et they also obscure important
details. Firstly, manufacturing is much more productive in 2012 than it was in 1987. Thus, although the
total number of people employed might have changed, the relative importance of the sector may not
1 stAtistiCs for 1987 And 2012 from thE “lAbour forCE survEy” (2013)
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have changed as much. Secondly, the categories themselves are far from homogenous. For example
the Skilled Trades Occupation category could include a variety of different class positions, covering
‘foremen, the manual self-employed, and small businessmen.’ This is important because it ‘embraces
groups oí people whose interests are diííerent írom - indeed in connict with - those oí manual work-
ers, however skilled, who depend on the sale of their labour-power for their livelihood’ (Callinicos,
1989: p4,. 1he same can be true íor other occupations. lor example, within the Sales and Customer
Service Occupations, there are various layers of supervisors which control and supervise the labour
of other workers. This means that there can be workers – to use Wright’s (1978: 63) terminology –
occupying ‘objectively contradictory locations within class relations’. Although they sell their own
labour they form part of the role of capital, and therefore, they have two opposing class interests.
The growth of service work is a central trend. What would it mean if a worker is now more likely to
work in a supermarket or a call centre, rather than in a factory or a coal mine? This kind of employ-
ment can indeed be subjected to similar methods of control and supervision originally developed in
the factory. The technology used to control the labour process in call centres is perhaps analogous
to the technician in a white coat with a stop watch on the íactory noor. 1he success oí 1aylorian
scientiFc management, larry Bra·erman ,1999: p60, argued, was that now work itselí is organized
according to Taylorian principles.’ The application of Taylorianism outside the Fordist factory was
anticipated by Braverman (1999: p79), when he argued that mental labour, after being separated from
manual labour, ‘is then itself subdivided rigorously according to the same rule.’ The purpose of this
is ‘to cheapen the worker by decreasing his training and enlarging his output’ (Braverman, 1999: p81).
Impact of neoliberalism
The statistics from 1987 and 2012 capture a period marked by the rise of neoliberalism. Its ad-
·ances has brought attacks on the terms and conditions oí work, on the welíare state, through
the reduction oí go·ernment spending, on the de·elopment oí public ser·ices íor market íorc-
es (Harvey, 2007: p12). These structural changes have been forced through with a series of de-
íeats írom the organised working class. 1he process has intensiFed with the current coalition
government’s austerity agenda. It has exposed increasing layers of society, without organisations
or traditions of trade union membership, to the experience of precarious working conditions.
This can be seen in the statistics for trade union membership, providing an estimate of the current
institutional level of working class organisation. Like census statistics, however, such statistics ob-
scure certain dynamics within working class organisation. The headline statistics for 2011 show that
there were 6.4 million employees who were members oí a trade union, with an o·erall density oí
26°, showing a downward trend írom 32.4°. 1he Fgures are based on the Labour lorce Sur·ey
series, begun in 1995. The membership is divided between 3.9 million in the public sector and 2.5
million in the private sector (Brownlie, 2012: p7). Union membership density in the public sector
stands at 56.5°, whereas in the pri·ate sector, it is only 14.1° ,Brownlie, 2012: p11,. 1his di·ision
is exacerbated by the fact that ‘the education and health and social work industries each account for
o·er a Fíth oí union members but only íor ¯.6 and 11.5 per cent oí non-union members respec-
tively’ (Brownlie, 2012: p11). It is therefore possible to say that these areas have a hugely dispropor-
tionate representation, or rather, that there are other areas lacking any signiFcant union organisation.
The phenomenon of workplaces without organisation and precarious conditions has been
the focus of recent debates about work. At one extreme Guy Standing (2011) argues for the
emergence of a new class, the ‘precariat’, providing little empirical evidence in support of his
claim. Kevin Doogan (2009), conversely, argues that although there is a ‘broad public percep-
tion of the end of jobs for life and the decline of stable employment’, such a perception op-
erates alongside ‘the rise in long-term employment’, and should therefore be rejected. This is
emphasised in the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1998: p95-9), where he argues that ‘précarité’ is a
new mode oí domination in public liíe . . . based on the creation oí generalized and perma-
nent state of insecurity aimed at forcing workers into submission, into the acceptance of ex-
ploitation.` \et precarity is not a new phenomenon, many types oí employment ha·e suííered
from precarious conditions until the workers affected were able to organise successfully. The
key question is: what íorms oí resistance emerge in these contexts· Upon which organisation
can be built, and what existing organisations can learn from, the new experiences of struggle?
Towards an inquiry
Statistics on employment by industry and institutional Fgures oí union membership íorm
only one part of the picture of class struggle in the UK. As George Rawick (1969: p23) has
previously pointed out: ‘Marxists have occasionally talked about working-class self-activi-
ty, as well they might, given that it was Marx’s main political focus.’ There needs to be an un-
derstanding that behind observable institutional phenomena, there are actions of an actu-
ally existing working class. Rawick (1969: p29) argued that it was also necessary to examine:
1he Fgures on how many man-hours were lost to production because oí strikes, the amount
oí equipment and material destroyed by industrial sabotage and deliberate negligence, the
amount of time lost by absenteeism, the hours gained by workers through slowdown, the lim-
iting of the speed-up of the productive apparatus through the working class’s own initiative.
1his highlights how the diííerent kinds oí quantitati·e data can pro·ide only a limited insight into
class today. It is necessary to search for a method to understand the realities of struggle, from the per-
spectives of workers that are engaged in it. The choice of what sources of statistics to use is loaded
with political implications, taking only the oíFcial statistics írom union-sanctioned industrial actions
could obscure a signiFcant part oí the reality. In a sense, what Rawick argued íor is an attempt to dis-
co·er the unrecorded or diíFcult to exca·ate Fgures oí class struggle. 1his attempt is perhaps analo-
gous – if it is possible to discard the negative connotations – to the distortion created by unreported
Fgures in oíFcial crime statistics, reíerred to as the dark Fgure` by Coleman and Moynihan ,1996,.
Marx attempted a no·el approach to unco·er statistically in·isible struggles in his call íor a workers` inquiry,
published in a newspaper in France in 1880 (Marx, 1938). The introduction explained the aim of the survey:
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Oxford Left Review 9
We hope to meet in this work with the support of all workers in town and coun-
try who understand that they alone can describe with full knowledge the mis-
fortunes from which they suffer, and that only they, and not saviours sent by Providence,
can energetically apply the healing remedies for the social ills to which they are a prey.
1his perspecti·e points towards a method oí research quite diííerent írom a cen-
sus or a sociological study. It explicitly links the construction of knowledge to a politi-
cal project. It takes as its starting point that those interested in conducting such surveys:
Must wish for an exact and positive knowledge of the conditions in which the work-
ing class – the class to whom the future belongs – works and moves. (Marx, 1938: p379)
The postal survey aimed to collect information, but crucially, it also intended to make contact
with workers. Marx ,1938: p3¯9, states that it is not essential to reply to e·ery question` - aíter
all, there were 101 questions. le emphasises, íurthermore, that the name and address should be
gi·en so that ií necessary we can send communication.` 1his potential role oí a workers` inquiry
as an organisational tool is important. It is diíFcult to build any íorms oí organisation without an
adequate knowledge oí the conditions oí those aííected. 1hus these íorms oí knowledge pro-
duction are, in a sense, part of trade union organisation. What is novel about this outline of a
workers` inquiry is that it is laid out in a íormal manner. lowe·er, there are no records oí the re-
sults that were gained from the survey, nor is there a discussion of either its successes or failures.
1he idea oí conducting workers` inquiries recei·ed a renewed interest in debates within the 1rot-
skyist movement, concerning the analysis of Stalinist Russia as a degenerated workers state. Of
particular interest are the Johnson-Forest Tendency in the USA (Dunayevskaya, 1972), the Social-
isme ou Barbarie group in France (Kessler, 1978), and the International Socialists in Britain, which
did not solidify into a group until later (Kuper, 1971). One particularly interesting example is the
study produced by the Johnson-Forest Tendency called The American Worker. It is a two part
pamphlet by Romano and Stone ,1946,, which aimed to document the conditions and experiences
oí rank-and-Fle workers in an American car íactory. 1he Frst part is a workers` inquiry written
by Paul Romano, who worked in the car íactory, the second part contains the theoretical analysis.
1he method oí workers` inquiry is rooted in the understanding oí the speciFc standpoint oí the
working class. This builds on the arguments put forward by Lukács’ (1971: p21), according to
whom ‘the Marxist method, the dialectical materialist knowledge of reality, can arise only from
the point of view of a class, from the point of view of the struggle of the proletariat.’ This
·iewpoint was íurther de·eloped by Italian Operaismo in the 1960s. 1heir inquiries íormed the
basis íor an understanding oí the new contexts in which the workplace is organised, in which
it requires an in·estigation oí current conditions, upon which new íorms oí organisation can
be built. Mario 1ronti ,1964: p9, íorceíully argued that theoretical research and practical politi-
cal work ha·e to be dragged - ·iolently ií need be - into íocussing on this question: not the
development of capitalism, but the development of the revolution.’ This new method of re-
search is to be linked, like the inquiries oí the Johnson-lorest 1endency and Socialisme ou
Barbarie, to the organisation oí a new íorm oí working class newspaper ,1ronti, 1964: p10,.`
1his political component oí the method is summarised by Romano Alquati in a useíul way:
Political militants have always done conricerca. We would go in front of the factory and
speak with workers: there cannot be organization otherwise ,quoted in Roggero, 2010: p3,.
1his statement is íurther clariFed by Roggero:
Alquati taught us that the problem is to grasp the truth, not to describe it. For the capacity to anticipate a tendency
i. vot av ivtettectvat artifce bvt tbe cov¡a.. of tbe vititavt ava tbe covaitiov for tbe ¡o..ibitit, of orgavi¸atiov
(Roggero, 2010: p4).
It is necessary to conduct further analysis to interrogate the nature of class today. The relative
decline of manufacturing has seen an increase of service work, including increases in the forms
of labour involved in education, health care, or emotive work. There needs to be an investigation
of what these shifting forms of labour mean for the possibilities of resistance and organisation.
Although the public sector remains a bastion of trade union membership, there are large sections
oí the working class without signiFcant institutional representation, oíten employed in condi-
tions that present obstacles to building organisation. 1he question oí what these changes mean
has to be connected with a project of understanding the struggle of workers themselves and of
attempting to inquire into what íorms oí organisation emerge in resistance to new conditions.
One proposed method to íurther the analysis is a workers` inquiry. 1his should not only
be ·iewed as part oí an epistemological project, it contains, within itselí, a potential po-
litical moment oí organisation. By conducting inquiries where we work oursel·es, where
we already have contact with workers, or where we want to make contact with workers, it
can form part of a political project that actively engages with the changing world around it.
1his is not to say that it is necessary to shiít the íocus away írom the political. \et the ques-
tion of whether the workplace can be a focus for collective and sustained projects for the
radical democratisation and transformation of society needs to be posed and answered.
Jamie Woodcock is an activist and PhD student at Goldsmiths University
WoodCoCk| The Working Class in Britain Today